Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
We’ve now spent the past six weeks talking about times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political. We have heard Jesus fight with religious leaders over interpretation of the law and debate with them about taxes. We’ve seen him stop a sham trial and work a miracle for an enemy officer and get political in his preaching in synagogue.
The political issues Jesus deals with in his own ministry are very often not ones we find ourselves grappling with today. I’m pretty sure that neither working on the Sabbath nor the legal aspects of divorce have come up in any of our recent presidential debates. I do hope that as the final day of voting draws near, we’ve been able to hear the more eternal values that undergird Jesus’ politics: good news to the poor, protection for the vulnerable, commitment to our neighbors’ flourishing, our ultimate commitment to God in all aspects of our lives.
Today we come to the account of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of Hosanna. It will be a familiar one to most of you, but it is a little strange to read it at this time of year. But I thought this passage was a fitting end to our series on the politics of Jesus, because there is perhaps no more overtly political act that Jesus performs in the Gospels than this entrance into Jerusalem.
A few weeks ago we read the account of Jesus’ interaction with a Roman military officer who came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant, and I expressed my own struggle with that story – that as much as Jesus gets in the faces of the religious leaders of his own people and says “woe to you,” he never says “woe” to this Roman officer, even though this officer is part of this ultimate oppressive system of empire.
We see hints of Jesus’ own brand of resistance to the oppression of empire in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, when he tells people that when someone makes them walk one mile they should walk two; or if someone sues them for their coat they should give them their shirt as well, these can all be read as ways to quietly expose the cruelty of the system by taking it to its logical extreme. But it’s in this Palm Sunday text, I believe, when we start to hear clearly Jesus’ final answer to Rome.
Scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem) would have us imagine that there was not just one, but two parades that day. From west of the city, the Roman army would have been marching in, ready to keep any would-be freedom fighters in line as Jerusalem prepared to celebrate its annual festival of liberation. They describe it like this: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums” (p. 3).
And meanwhile, from the east, one man rides into the city on a donkey colt, surrounded by a ragtag group shouting their hosannas. Save us, Hosanna means.
Jesus, intentionally or unintentionally here, is acting out a scene described by the prophet Zechariah: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem,” God says through Zechariah, “and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.”
From the west, the war horses snort. From the east, a king enters his city in humility and peace.
One parade, you see, is a parody of the other.
And the question for everyone watching is whose entrance into the city do you hail? And the bigger question wrapped up in that is who do you name as Lord – Jesus, or Caesar? And the question that comes from that is where do we claim our citizenship – in the empire, with all the protection and security it has to offer? Or in the Kingdom ushered in by this humble, peaceful king?
Jesus never led an uprising against Rome – thought plenty of people hoped and expected that he would. But he did resist it: not just Rome itself but all of the trappings of empire. He resisted it by inviting people to live out something different. He told them it was possible to say no to the idols of power, peace ensured through force, status, hierarchy, the amassing of wealth on the backs of others: all the things on which empire is built. Instead he said it was possible to live by the values of love, mercy, self-sacrifice, a belief in God’s abundance, and solidarity with the poor.
America, of course, is not Rome – not exactly. I’m sure that many of us would say that we love this country. Some of us were born here; some of us have chosen to be here. Some of us have worked for the government. It is possible to love America, I think, and not put our trust in the trappings of empire. It is possible to love one’s country and still claim one’s ultimate citizenship elsewhere.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, we should not think that it will save us.
A seminary classmate of mine recently put it this way in a Facebook post, referring to one of the recent presidential debates: “Sure, I’ll vote,” she said, “but I prefer not to waste my one wild and precious life obsessing over political theater. I’d rather use my time, energy and power to actually CREATE and PARTICIPATE in alternative possibilities. That’s why I serve as a pastor of a tiny church, it’s why I’m so excited to be more connected to my neighbors in South Durham…: these are real, tangible, immediate spheres where another way of living is not only possible, it is ALREADY HAPPENING. Vote and then go keep living as if God’s new reign of mercy and justice were already here (because it is); we’re going to need a lot of us pulling in that direction together in the coming years.”
What happens Tuesday will not save us. But there’s one who will, and he comes now, riding on a donkey, exposing the power and grandeur of Rome for the lies they are, inviting us to join an entirely different parade.
And to him, we shout Hosanna.